TOWNER, N.D. — While much of the Midwest struggles with flooding and soggy conditions, farmers and ranchers in northern North Dakota and southern Canada are dealing with their third consecutive year of drought conditions.
“Everyone I’ve talked to around this area has said the same things: The grass in the pastures is not there; the hay meadows are not there; the water holes are low. What are we going to do?” said rancher Robert Green.
The southern edge of the drought area runs through the northern third of North Dakota. The June 20 report of the U.S. Drought Monitor showed a strip of severe drought in north central North Dakota, making up 6.78% of the state. That is surrounded by moderate drought, making up 14.88% of the state. Abnormally dry conditions surround the drought area. Moderate drought conditions stretch into eastern Montana, and abnormally dry conditions stretch into Minnesota. The Canadian Drought Monitor, last updated May 31, shows large areas of land facing even worse drought conditions than in North Dakota.
Rachel Wald, North Dakota State University Extension Agent for McHenry County, said many producers are in “dire straits.”
“If you’ve ever been on a golf course on a nice little putting green, it’s that, but not green,” she says. “There’s very little out there.”
Green ranches with his wife, Gwen, and youngest son James northwest of Towner. The Greens are moving their 190-cow herd through their intensive grazing system to new paddocks about every two days — about half of normal.
Even though grasses in some areas look healthy, Green says a closer look reveals sparse vegetation and grasses that have headed out far earlier than usual.
“They’re at that point in growth where if they don’t get rain, moisture, they’re in trouble,” he said, “big trouble.”
Farmers in the area are dealing with a multitude of crop problems. Wald has photos of corn leaves that already are curling and wheat that isn’t tillering and is thin and distressed. She has heard of seeds that germinated and died and of crops devastated by flea leaf beetles. Many farmers have replanted or plan to, but they’re replanting into dry soil. Some crops may be beyond repair, she said.
Weeds also are worse than usual, she said. Leafy spurge is visible in large patches throughout the county, including at the Greens’ place.
Green said an April frost hurt grass production and leafy spurge took off. Now the drought has given it more of an advantage.
“In the drought years, the spurge is the worst,” he said.
“Weeds this year are a little bit worse than normal,” Wald said. “They’re taking over areas that are easy for them.”
Buy feed or sell down
The Greens started an intensive grazing system in 1996 as a way to maximize production on the ranch started by Robert’s parents and uncle in the 1940s. The pastures are a mix of native and non-native grasses.
The Greens pipe water to some areas and use a water system rigged in trailers in others. In one water hole, the water level has dropped about 2 feet since earlier this spring. Before cows go into that paddock, they’ll pipe water from a well to fill it up.
Even though grass in many of the paddocks is looking dry and withered, there are some green spots. In the area pairs were grazing on June 14, the Greens put out bales for grazing throughout the winter a few winters back. Looking out across the paddock, nearly perfect circles of greener, thicker grass can be seen where organic matter collected in larger concentrations as cows ate down the bales. They plan to use more bales for grazing this winter.
Gwen Green keeps careful records of cattle movement through the paddocks, as well as hay production. Hay production was about 60% of normal in 2017, then down further in 2018. This year isn’t looking good. Even if they can get through a normal year on the pastures, the feed supplies might not support the cattle for the winter.
That leaves two options: selling down on cattle or buying feed. Wald advises deep culling, along with early preg checking. That way, open cows are sold earlier so that forage can be saved for the bred cattle.
The Greens already have a few cows separated for culling, mostly ones with bad udders or attitude problems. But Green said they could sell down further if needed.
Buying feed also is an option. Green said that comes with challenges as well, including where it may be available, whether it’s available for a reasonable price and whether trucking is available.
Since much of North Dakota has had normal or above-average precipitation, Wald hopes some southern producers have extra hay for sale.
“I’m really hoping southern North Dakota producers are able to produce a lot of forage so we’re able to bring it up here if need be,” she said.
There’s still hope that the weather will turn wetter for the region, but much of the damage has been done. Green said the ranch got about three-quarters of an inch of rain in May. Before June 14, only about a quarter-inch had fallen in June.
“All your grass that you make this year comes from precipitation in April, May and June,” he said. “And we’re kind of on the short end of that big stick.”
However, Green reported about a half-inch fell at the ranch on the evening of June 14, and North Dakota Agricultural Weather Network stations showed rainfall across northern North Dakota in the days that followed. While that won’t solve all of the problems, Green said it definitely helps. Beyond that, he’s hoping for some divine intervention.
“Hope to the good Lord that He shines a little light on you once in awhile,” he said.